SANA’A, YEMEN — Twenty-eight-year-old Mohammed Nasher al-Rajwai is the typical face of the emerging swine flu pandemic in its more serious stages. In Yemen’s capital city of Sana’a, he lay in the critical care unit of al-Azal Hospital on 60th Street.
His family prays and stands vigil. For nearly ten days, Mohammed was fighting for his life. His wife said:
We had a hard time, it feels like part of my soul has been crushed. It’s the worst imaginable feeling to see your husband fall that quickly and to be that ill and die. The night he went to the emergency room was the scariest moment we’ve had in our entire life.”
Mohammed, a father of three, died last Friday, overcome by the symptoms of the swine flu virus, two days after being treated in al-Azal’s intensive care unit. Issam Al-Harazi, Data Officer for epidemiological surveillance at Yemen’s Ministry of Health, told MintPress News that al-Rajwai died as a result of a viral infection of his respiratory system, likely caused by the H1N1 (swine flu) virus, which affected the cells of his nasal mucosa, throat and lungs, and then moved to the rest of his body.
The spokesman for the Ministry of Health and Population in Sana’a, Yousef al-Hathari, told MintPress that there have been a total 418 suspected H1N1 cases in and around the province of Sana’a and in northern Yemen over the past two months alone, and 86 people have died from the virus — though al-Hathari suspects the number of deaths to be higher, as many cases go unreported.
Al-Hathari went on to say that this week health centers had received “46 cases of swine flu in the secretariat of the capital, Amran, and Ibb provinces, and 11 deaths,” which means the virus is likely beginning its spread across the region.
In fact, according to Yemen’s Health Ministry, the virus is spreading rapidly in many of Yemen’s provinces. Al-Hathari explained that “in winter the incidence of influenza is already high and the climate is conducive to the spread of the virus.” If the virus continues to spread among Yemen’s vulnerable population, it could cause another major health disaster in a country already grappling with a cholera epidemic, especially in the absence of vaccines and treatment exacerbated by the Saudi-led coalition’s crippling blockade.
H1NI, colloquially known as the Swine Flu, is a subtype of the common influenza virus prevalent among pigs, but transmission of the virus from animals to humans is rare and does not always lead to human infection. However, when it does develop in humans, it carries a significantly higher risk of fatality than the common flu.
An environment of infestation
The death of Mohammed al-Rajwai, a public-sector worker, has sparked fear in Sana’a that the virus will spread, especially considering the compromised state of Yemen’s health infrastructure owing to the ongoing war and the blockade that has been imposed by Saudi-led coalition.
“We are living in an environment infested with all kinds of viruses thanks to the war,” said Fahd Assad, a father of four whose sons are still recovering from cholera. “Now I am afraid of swine influenza, God help us.” Assad lives in the district of Dares, an overpopulated slum north of the capital with a high population density, including refugees who fled from violence in nearby Hodeida, Hajjah and Sa’ada.
The Saudi-imposed war on Yemen has marked a turning point. Before it began in 2015, outsiders seldom gathered in big cities like Sana’a, limiting the spread of infectious diseases such as influenza. Indeed, some rural residents could live for years without exposure to many of the infections that frequent large cities. But the war has forced people from across rural Yemen to flee to Sana’a seeking shelter from the violence. People from outer provinces are now directly connected – and more liable than ever before to be exposed to the flu and other infectious diseases.
Officials in Sana’a told MintPress News that the spread of the H1N1 virus poses a potential for disaster to the population. Meanwhile, international health organizations have so far released no data to clarify the reality of Yemen’s latest health crisis and have done little to nothing to raise awareness and educate the local community about the epidemic — leaving war-torn Yemenis to navigate the risks of the disease, its symptoms, the means of transmission and the means to cope with them on their own.
To make matters worse, Yemen’s hospitals suffer from a lack of life-saving medicines as a result of the Saudi coalition’s imposed siege on the country. Flu cases that could otherwise be treated are leaving patients in critical condition and facing death. Yemen’s health officials estimate that 80 percent of those with H1N1 risk death owing to the lack of medication available and Yemen’s devastated health infrastructure. Officials blame the countries of Saudi-led coalition for the influx of diseases and epidemics that have taken hold in Yemen since the war began.
Observers warn of a major health disaster in Yemen if the epidemics continue unabated, and say international health organizations have been slow to respond.
A deadly compounding of factors
Unlike Mohammed al-Rajwai, few patients admitted to local hospitals with suspected H1N1 cases wind up in intensive care. In fact, most people who contract the virus are unable to reach a hospital at all, as so many have been destroyed in the war. For example, in the district of Ahem, a remote area in northern Hajjah province, the single hospital serving the entire region was leveled by Saudi bombs.
More than three years of near-constant airstrikes by Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates have left Yemen’s roads impassable and have turned its hospitals and clinics to rubble, while a ruinous blockade of Yemen’s ports has depleted the country’s supplies of life-saving medicine. The hospitals that have not been destroyed barely function; doctors have not been paid and power outages are frequent.
The U.S.-backed, Saudi-led coalition has repeatedly, systematically and deliberately attacked health facilities in Yemen since it began its military campaign against the country in 2015. According to the Legal Center For Rights and Development, an organization that tracks Saudi violations of international law in Yemen, 318 hospitals and health centers have been destroyed since 2015.
Even before the war, Yemen was the poorest country in the Middle East, and the war has compounded that poverty. Thousands of doctors and nurses have gone months without a paycheck and over 22 million of the country’s nearly 27 million people are now in dire need of food, medicine, water and shelter.
After more than 1300 days of the war on Yemen, the health status of the population is dire. The country has the fastest growing cholera outbreak ever recorded; diphtheria and measles have now emerged in the country, and Yemen is in the midst of the world’s worst famine. Nearly 18 million people do not have enough food to eat, and the malnourished are even more susceptible to disease.
Top Photo | A man is treated for suspected cholera infection at a hospital in Sanaa, Yemen, May. 7, 2017. Hani Mohammed | AP
Ahmed AbdulKareem is a Yemeni journalist. He covers the war in Yemen for MintPress News as well as local Yemeni media.